Terms of Engagement

The Bear Hug

Vladimir Putin is cheering Ukraine's stiff-arm to Europe. But can Kiev also keep Russia at arm's length?


Kiev is burning! Okay, that’s not quite true; I’m just trying to get you to pay attention to something other than Iran. But tens of thousands of demonstrators are, in fact, facing riot police in Ukraine’s capital in the first truly mass protests since the Orange Revolution of 2004. What they are demanding is Europe. And what they’re getting instead is Russia. It may not be as big a deal as Iran, but it’s a very big deal.

The demonstrations were provoked by a last-minute decision by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych to suspend preparations for a trade agreement with the European Union five years in the making. On Thursday night, Yanukovych awkwardly attended what was to be a signing ceremony in Lithuania for the so-called Association Agreement, which would have established virtually free trade with Europe while bringing vast amounts of technical assistance from European governmental bodies. But Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, threatened Yanukovych with economic ruin if he did so; and Yanukovych blinked.

The Ukrainian drama is only one episode in the larger geopolitical and cultural drama playing out along the border between Eastern Europe and Russia. Putin cannot, or in any case will not, accept the westward gravitation of former Soviet states. In 2008, he went to war in order to punish a refractory, devoutly pro-Western Georgia. Last summer, Russia carried out a trade war with Belarus, a rather abject Russia ally, and it has pressured Armenia and Moldova, as well. Over the summer, as Ukraine prepared to conclude the trade deal with Europe, Russia temporarily sealed the border to imports; in October, Gazprom, the oil and gas colossus, threatened to cut off the supply of natural gas if Ukraine didn’t pay past bills. By such brutal rules do the neo-tsarists in the Kremlin play the game of statecraft.

For the university students and professionals and civil society activists who have filled Kiev, the EU agreement is a proxy for a "civilizational choice," as Olexiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla University, puts it. For them, it is Europe vs. Russia. But the demonstrators in the squares of Kiev are no more "Ukraine" than those in Tahrir Square in 2011 were "Egypt." Ukraine is a huge country whose western border abuts Hungary and Slovakia and whose eastern edge juts hundreds of miles into Russia. It lives in both worlds. When I suggested to Lincoln Mitchell, an expert in the region at Columbia University, that Ukraine was being pulled westward by soft power and threatened to the east by hard power, he corrected me: "Russia has soft power in Ukraine," he pointed out. "If you’re in the east, you’re living with Russian media and culture and language."

So while the stakes are civilizational for the middle class in Kiev — and perhaps for Putin — ordinary Ukrainians probably just want to start living more like Poles and Slovaks. The reason they’re not doing so is that over the last decade Ukraine has suffered from dreadful leadership, first from Viktor Yuschenko, who led — and is then is seen to have betrayed — the Orange Revolution, and now from Yanukovych, an incompetent and corrupt figure who has done severe damage to the economy while allegedly hugely enriching a small circle of businessmen from his hometown of Donetsk. In between came Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych defeated and then imprisoned on corruption charges after a Soviet-style trial.

So the beneath the mighty geopolitical battle is a tale of fecklessness. Yanukovych has claimed that he is helpless before Russian blackmail, but the truth is that his own bumbling leadership has made him an easy target for Putin. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stopped disbursing $15 billion when the Yanukovych failed to come through on promised reforms. And the president and his prime minister made wild demands of the EU, perhaps imagining that their leverage was vastly greater than it was. They seem to have belatedly woken up to the fact that Europe wasn’t just going to turn Kiev into Paris overnight. In recent weeks, both have made desperate dashes to Russia, where they appear to have secured a promise to ease trade restrictions and keep natural gas flowing.

The problem, at the root, may be that Ukraine’s leadership class, while yearning for European-style prosperity, defaults to Russian-style authoritarianism. The EU thinks of itself as a community of values, and demanded as pre-conditions to the trade agreement that Ukraine embark on a path of democratic reform. Among other things, the government had to create the conditions for an independent judiciary and transparent elections, and release Tymoshenko, who needed surgery for an acute back problem. Yanukovych, and his captive parliament, stalled, and then refused. Yanukovych is not about to release his chief rival with elections coming up in early 2015, even at the cost of losing a precious agreement with Europe. Indeed, Haran argues that the real reason the president can’t afford to alienate Putin is that he needs the Kremlin’s support for the election. On the other hand, he adds, "it’s very dangerous to rely on Putin."

The collapse of the trade deal leaves Ukraine in an in-between space which may prove very hard to sustain. The reason is that while Europe is quite content with the light embrace of mere association, Russia wants to wrap its allies in a smothering bear hug. For Putin, as for George W. Bush, you’re either with us or against us. "With us" is a very small category. Putin has invented a counter-EU he calls the "Customs Union," which is so exclusive that it now has but three members — Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Putin aspires to expand his little club into a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015, and he wants lots of new members, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and, of course, Ukraine. There is reason to fear that this body may look less like a union than an imperial court, to which lesser sovereigns come to pay tribute.

There is little enthusiasm for Putin’s club either in Ukraine or in the government in Kiev. But now Yanukovych, having bowed before Russian pressure, has to avoid the full Russian embrace. He might soon find that Ukrainian exports to Russia are once again being mysteriously held up at the border. Meanwhile, with economic output falling, Ukraine could soon face a financial crisis. And, absent real economic or political reform, he won’t be able to turn to the EU or the IMF. It could get pretty lonely in Kiev. 

But what about all those hopeful folks filling the streets of Ukraine’s cities and towns, wrapping themselves in the EU colors of blue and yellow? They’re going to be disappointed, as they’ve been disappointed since 2004. The "color revolutions" of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, have not realized the hopes born with them, as the revolutions of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have. But neither have those hopes been snuffed out. Psychologically, says Olexiy Haran, the demonstrations mean that "it won’t be so easy to turn the country to Russia or to falsify the elections of 2015." By that time, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions may have worn out its welcome. The opposition’s leading candidate is Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer (and current WBC champion
). And Klitschko, like the rest of the opposition, is committed to deeper integration with Europe.

As Lincoln Mitchell points out, no party in Ukraine since 2004 has built a consensus that unites east and west. The country can’t move forward so long as it consists of two mutually exclusive camps. And so what looks at first glance like a titanic battle between Europe and Russia — a civilizational battle — is in the end a struggle among Ukrainians to recuperate the euphoric vision of 2004.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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